Eating Toads in Peshawar

Pakistan will muddle through post-Musharraf.  But violence, instability and a fractious political coalition will plague Islamabad.

Peshawar-Islamabad, Pakistan

Opening the papers in Pakistan this morning, two French maxims came to mind. The first is that "every man has to digest a toad every day before breakfast." This thought was inspired by the front page news that the next President of Pakistan will most probably be Asif Ali Zardari, widower of the late Benazir Bhutto, and widely known among both Pakistanis and Westerners here as "Mr. Ten Percent." Corruption charges against him were dropped-contrary to Pakistan's law and constitution-on the orders of now ex-President Musharraf as part of the abortive US-brokered deal to create an alliance between Musharraf and Bhutto's PPP, but the Swiss investigation into his past activities continues.

Staring glumly at the amphibian in my porridge, I tried to comfort myself with the second maxim, that "life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel." I resolved that from now on, whatever happens, I will spend my time in Pakistan laughing my head off; I was helped in that resolve by the thought that after all, this is Pakistan's toad, not mine, and that therefore it isn't me who will have to digest it.

Unfortunately, I hadn't reached the omelet before the obvious thought imposed itself that this is partly my toad-and yours too, Dear Reader. The dangers stemming from Pakistan's internal situation are no joke, as far as both the war in Afghanistan and the wider terrorist threat to the West are concerned. Furthermore, while incredulous laughter may be an appropriate response to many aspects of Pakistani politics, it is most certainly not an appropriate response to events like the terrorist bomb which yesterday killed 21 people at a hospital in Dera Ismail Khan; or the savage campaign by Islamist militants against their opponents in Pakistan's Tribal Areas; or the heavy fighting between the Pakistani Army and militants in the Bajaur Tribal Agency, which has forced tens of thousands of refugees out of the region; or the destruction by the militants of hundreds of girls' schools.

The situation in Pakistan is not nearly as bad as the more hysterical sections of the Western media would have it. The country is still a very long way indeed from collapse or revolution. I was warned before setting off for Peshawar that the city was "under siege from the militants," and far too dangerous for Westerners to visit. A couple of nights ago, as I tucked into my eighth piece of tikka with Pakistani hosts at Green's Hut, a delightful outdoor restaurant in the Peshawar, I reflected that so far-insha'allah, as one must say here-the biggest threat to long-term health in the city remains what it has always been, a combination of Pashtun hospitality and wonderfully rich local food. There have been a couple of bombs since my arrival, but this is a sprawling city of almost four million people. There is trouble not far from Peshawar, but the city itself is in no real sense "under siege."

All the same, things are bad enough, and I heard from numerous sources that those with the money to do so-or able to raise the money somehow-are beginning to create potential escape routes, sending their children to study in the West, and trying by all means to procure residence permits in the West for themselves. Some parts of the economy are beginning to suffer badly.

Together with widespread disillusionment with politicians in general and Zardari in particular, that may be the reason why, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the population was very glad to see Musharraf go, celebrations by the people were very muted. Pashtuns are given to firing in the air to celebrate happy events, and according to friends, when Musharraf overthrew the widely-hated Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999, "you'd have thought a war had broken out in Peshawar." When the news of Musharraf's resignation came through on Monday, I did not hear a single shot.

Above all, there is very widespread public skepticism that the fractious coalition between Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN), and various smaller parties will last long, or that it will be able to deal with the three most pressing issues affecting the country: namely the steep rise in inflation which risks immiserating not only the poor but the lower middle classes; the spread of civil war in and beyond the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA); and the spread of terrorism throughout the country.

As to what the government and Army should do in the face of the growing insurgency, the population is deeply confused and divided, and this is reflected in the stance of the political parties. On the one hand, there is growing revulsion at the militants' violence against civilians. On the other, a key reason which very nearly every person I spoke to on the streets of Peshawar gave for wishing to see Musharraf gone was that (in one phrase or another) he had "taken US money to kill his own people." Many people blame the Army, not the militants, for the growth of conflict; even those who denounce the militants will often in the next breath denounce the Army for excessive violence in dealing with them. Many people say that the Army itself created the militants; others, that America created them in order to destroy Pakistan-another reason Pakistan should not help America against the Afghan Taliban.

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